Appendix 1: History of Evolutionary Thought


© Rosemary Bardsley 2013

Contrary to popular belief the concept of an evolutionary origin of the universe and its life forms did not begin with Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection in 1859.

The two fundamental principles of the evolutionary belief are:

That the universe as we see it now, and all that is in the universe, is the result of a very long process of slow, gradual, random change.

That ‘nature’ created itself. [That is, that there is no such thing as a divine, personal, intelligent Creator who deliberately, and out of nothing, created all that is.]

These two fundamental beliefs have been expressed in various ways, and with various associated beliefs, for a very long time. While some evolutionary systems retained some kind of ‘god’ concept, for the most part these concepts of ‘god’ can be shown to be pantheistic concepts, including, in some cases, polytheistic or animistic concepts. In history it is only very rarely that the concept of a monotheistic, sovereign, intelligent, personal, eternal God, who existed before all else, has been coupled with evolutionary beliefs.



Here is a limited overview of the history of evolutionary beliefs in European thought:

[1] Greek philosophers in the pre Christian era. Note that none of these had any biblical beliefs:

Milesian/Ionian philosophy [seventh century BC] promoted a materialism which later was developed in the Atomist school [sixth century BC] – a universe resulting from the random interplay of atoms, not from intelligent creative design; an unlimited, infinite, irrational universe. [Democritus [460-362BC] coined the word ‘atom’.] Thales [624-546 BC] and Anaximander [610-546BC] – taught the evolution of men from animals, animals from plants, plants from inorganic elements, and these from water. Xenophanes taught evolution of land animals from marine animals. Heraclitus and Empedocles believed in development by random changes, struggle for existence and natural selection.

Socrates [469-399BC] – along with Plato and Aristotle laid the foundation of Western philosophy and science. Taught [according to Plato’s depiction of him] that the material world is not the real world, but just a shadow of the real world. [Note that this concept of non-reality is parallels the Hindu concept of maya.]

Plato [424-348BC] taught a form of pantheistic evolution [but in reverse]. He appears to have believed in a ‘supreme being’ whom he termed ‘World-Soul’ from which everything else emanated in a descending, degenerating, and reincarnating chain of being.  Held to Socrates’ concept of the material world as non-real – a mere appearance, lacking reality. The ‘real world’ consists of perfect ideas or ‘forms’.

Aristotle [382-322BC] wrote the Scala Naturae [Ladder of Life] (included the concept of ‘the great chain of being’), in which everything was classified into various strata. This is understood by some to have been an evolutionary concept [although with the evolution descending progressively, rather than ascending]. He taught that the Supreme Being is all ‘actuality’ – an impersonal prime mover from which all things emanated. (A pantheistic concept.)  He taught the uncreatedness and eternality [without beginning or ending] of matter, time, motion and the world, and the ‘spontaneous generation of small organisms from non-organic materials’.

[Note: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all believed in a supreme ‘god’ and in ‘creation’; not in the same sense as the Bible, but in a pantheistic sense, similar to the concepts of Eastern religion. However, all three have had significant influence on many later Christians. Their concepts are to blame for a number of concepts taught by Christians for many generations. They also had an impact on science.]

Epicurus [342-270BC] followed Aristotle to some extent, but denied any ‘god’ concept. Taught that everything on the earth evolved from the earth. His followers, Epicureans, were atheists, monists and materialists, denied special creation and believed in evolutionary processes.

Lucretius [98-55BC] – an Epicurean. Taught [1] that the universe/nature runs itself without the aid of gods; [2] continually on-going change involving random movement of particles, [3] that things cannot be created out of nothing; and [4] all living things were generated from the earth. [Note that Paul was confronted by a group of Epicureans (and Stoics) in Acts 17:18].

Stoics [same time as Epicureans]. Were pantheists; identified god with active force, believed in some form of natural generation of living creatures out of the earth or as emanations from the cosmos; deified the cosmos. Followed Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Gnosticism [a form of Platonism] was corrupting the understanding of the early Church, even in the time of the Apostles. Morris summarises: ‘Gnosticism was fundamentally nothing but evolutionary pantheism, overlain with a great complex of spiritistic revelations, mystical communications with a hierarchy of angelic gods …’ [p210, ibid]. [Colossians and 1John address Gnostic type heresies; it is possibly referred to by Paul in 1Timothy 6:20.]


[2] Western philosophers and teachers in the Christian era up to and around the time of Charles Darwin. Some of these held Christian beliefs; some were not Christians; some were avidly anti-Christian.

Clement [150-215AD] and Origen [184-253AD] were influenced by Gnosticism. [Both were recognized Christian leaders.]

Neoplatonism [3rd century AD, and beyond] – mysticism, pantheism, monism; adapted the concept of ‘the great chain of being’. Henry Morris summarises: ‘the world is the universal “Soul” from which all things are “created” in a constantly descending stream. There is no true beginning and no ending, neither of the cosmos nor of individuals. Souls that have lived unrighteously are reincarnated in the bodies of lower animals, but there is an eternal striving upwards toward the unattainable “Yonder”.’ [p208f ibid]. Morris notes that Neoplatonism also embraced pagan demonology and animistic polytheism.

Gregory of Nyassa [c331-c396AD] was influenced by Neoplatonism, believing in the unreality of the material world. [Christian leader.]

Augustine [354-430AD] believed in the Scripture, and in Creation in a limited sense, but was strongly influenced by Neoplatonism, and he in turn has influenced Christian thought. Felt pressured by pantheistic philosophy to accommodate and allegorize Genesis. He believed that some species developed spontaneously, some by slow development, some by creation. [Bishop of Hippo, Algeria.]

Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274AD] similarly believed the Scripture and Creation, but felt the same pressure as Augustine to accommodate and allegorize Genesis. Contributed to bringing Platonic, Neoplatonic and Aristotelian concepts of the Chain of Being, and evolutionism, into the religious philosophy of Europe. [Dominican priest.]

Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, published Zoonomia in 1794. Along with other of his writings, it contains evolutionary suggestions, including natural selection. [He held deistic beliefs and was strongly opposed to Christianity.]

Thomas Malthus’ [1766-1834AD] theories regarding population influenced both Wallace and Darwin in their formulating of evolutionary theories in respect to the development of species by natural selection. [An Anglican clergyman.]

James Hutton [1726-1797AD] taught long ages of uniform development, with no beginning and no expectation of any end. Believed that the earth is a living super-organism. Suggested a form of natural selection. [Was a deist.]

Wells, Pritchard and Lawrence each published papers on natural selection in 1813

Lamarck [1744-1849AD]: taught uniformitarianism, on-going spontaneous generation of simple organisms, and continual upward evolution. His concept of evolution however, was not based on natural selection, but on inheritance of acquired characteristics. [He was a materialist: he did not believe in God.]

Patrick Matthew, [1790 – 1874AD] published a paper on natural selection in 1831 as an appendix in a book about naval timber, of which Darwin was ignorant, and which Darwin, in later editions of his Origin, acknowledged as ‘precisely the same’ as his own. However, in a letter to Darwin in 1871 Matthew stated the impossibility of natural selection accounting for beauty, and expressing belief in design. [A fruit farmer.]

Charles Lyell, [1797-1875AD] published Principles of Geology in 1830-33, in which he taught uniformitarianism [the opposite of catastrophism], popularizing Hutton’s teaching; he strongly believed in long ages and uniformity; like Hutton he denied the biblical record of the flood. He encouraged Darwin to publish his Origin of the Species, while at the time still publicly believing in a form of progressive creation by God. However, private letters indicate that he was more and more tending towards ‘creation’ by natural causes, but was wary of the public reaction that would evoke. Regardless, his theory of long ages of uniform development provided the necessary basis for Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species. [Raised in a liberal Christian home. He deliberately set out to free geology from biblical parameters.]

Robert Chambers [1802-1871AD] anonymously published the controversial Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844. This taught stellar evolution and progressive transmutation of the species.

Charles Darwin, [1809-1882AD] published On the Origin of the Species in 1859. [Raised in a nominally Christian home, with unitarian beliefs; came to reject first the Old Testament, then the New Testament; became a theistic evolutionist; later became an agnostic and taught materialistic evolution (evolution without God).]

Karl Marx [1818-1883AD] [Declared himself an atheist.] Helped to popularize Darwin’s theory.

Russel Wallace, [1823-1913AD] a contemporary of Darwin, working in Malaysia, wrote a paper, independent of Darwin, but containing most of Darwin’s theory; this paper and one of Darwin’s, was presented publicly in 1858. [Not a Christian; a sceptic regarding religion; devoted to ‘spiritualism’ (=spiritism).]

Thomas Huxley [1825-1895AD] a very significant, influential, highly-respected, self-taught biologist. ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, although he was somewhat agnostic regarding the process of ‘natural selection’, despite having no alternative ‘how’ process to offer. His public defence of evolution undermined literal belief in the Old Testament, particularly Genesis. This pleased liberal clergy. He strongly and publicly promoted man’s evolution from apes. [He called himself an ‘agnostic’, and was a strong opponent of organised religion.]

Ernst Haeckel [1834-1919AD] believed in evolution similar to Lamarck. Had significant force in confirming the evolutionary theory [in popular opinion] by the recapitulation theory in which he taught and demonstrated by drawings, that the human embryo develops through stages that reflect the progressive stages of evolution. This is still taught, even though it has been discredited.



The above section looks at European evolutionary concepts from ancient Greece to the modern era. In this section is evidence of evolutionary concepts in other eras and other countries and their religions/philosophies.

Both Confucianism [founded by Confucius (551-479BC)] and Taoism [founded by Lao-Tse (604-517BC)] are evolutionary and pantheistic. [Countries of greatest influence: China]

Buddhism [founded by Buddha (563-480BC)] contains no objective concept of a personal God. Taught and endless cycle of reincarnation based on the cause-and-effect doctrine of karma. Appears to be either atheistic or pantheistic. Contemporary Buddhism affirms evolution. [Countries: began in India, but now common in China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Tibet, Nepal, in its various sects.]

Hinduism [difficult to put a date on its origin; most popular form originated c600BC; first writings c300BC; is pantheistic and monistic in which each person is part of a perpetual, determined, cosmic evolutionary system. [India]

Animism [a widespread belief crossing national and religious boundaries, and spanning almost all periods of time] teaches belief in, fear of, or worship of spirits – either human spirits or demons. Many animistic people have a vague concept of a far-off ‘high god’, but focus on the spirit ‘gods’ that inhabit various elements of nature. Thus animism is basically pantheistic; the animists’ doctrine of ‘creation’ starts with already existing materials. In one way or another nature creates itself.

Greek mythology: Hesiod [?800BC] and Homer [(?)1000BC] – taught that eternal matter existed out of which life (including the gods) arose. Contains polytheism, pantheism, nature worship, occultism.

Other ancient mythologies: The mythologies of a wide range of ancient peoples contain similar concepts to Hesiod and Homer, with an eternal primeval chaotic mass out of which ‘god’, ‘gods’, or the natural world, including life itself, arose.